Yes, but what’s the alternative?

It wasn’t until I was 17 that I began to understand just how much suffering and inequality there is the world today.

Given the obscene gulf between the haves and the have-nots, it struck me that the way in which humanity governs itself is obviously flawed, and for the life of me I could not understand why no one was doing anything about it.

One evening, whilst we were eating dinner, I broke into my parents’ political discussion in pursuit of answers, but my father confronted my idealism with this irrefutable retort: “You might not like things as they are, what’s the alternative?”

I didn’t have an answer. And the more I read about life in Communist Russia or Puritan New England or even Albigensian Occitania, the more I despaired of humanity’s ability to ever come up with a better alternative. As far as I could see, any progress that had ever been made towards social justice had just as soon been snuffed out, either by the vested interests of entrenched power elites or by the parochialism of the very people it was destined to help.

I gave up on activism early and became determinedly apolitical. I’ve never even voted in an election: I did not want to count myself complicit in a political system that I believed to be fundamentally flawed. I figured that if I couldn’t change the world to my liking then I’d be better off trying to change myself such that the world might seem less irksome to me.

 

Illustration: Hanne Korsnes

 

That said, not having an answer to my father’s question didn’t stem my fascination with all the twisted distortions of human society. The study of climate change in particular has been a personal passion over the last decade, but my research only ever seemed to increase my sense of humanity as a lost cause. Is there a limit to how much attention one should pay to a crashing train? Perhaps my inability to avert my gaze reflects the unconscious belief that ‘surely there must be a solution somewhere’, either that or the harbinger of long-term depression…

All of a sudden, a few weeks ago, the shadow that my father’s question had cast over my political life lifted. I’d long heard of an American academic/political commentator by the name of Noam Chomsky but, to my discredit, I’d never bothered to investigate his work any further. Reading through a weighty tome called Understanding Power, I did not find the answer to my father’s question but instead realised the flaw present in the question itself: If you ask Noam Chomsky, you don’t need to know what Utopia looks like in order to build it. You just need to know where to place the first brick.

His first case in point is the history of the US labour movement and workers’ rights. At the dawn of the 19th century there was no labour movement; common law stated clearly that ‘conspiracy to raise wages’ was illegal. Over the next 50 years a small number of workers banded together seeking higher pay and were duly prosecuted for criminal conspiracy. Fast forward to 1945 and the right to form trade unions was legally enshrined. 14.3 million Americans counted themselves union members: roughly 21% of the total workforce. The status of labour unions in American society has since declined but their legacy lives on in the form of controls on wages, working hours and conditions, and the right to assemble and collectively bargain with employers. These benefits were not achieved as part of some overarching visionary project. They were the result of generations of workers banding together and engaging with the issues most relevant to them in their time.

 

«I’ve never even voted in an election: I did not want to count myself complicit in a political system that I believed to be fundamentally flawed»

 

In their alliance with the civil rights movement, the labour unions increased pressure on the government to eradicate racial prejudice from existing legislation. Freedom of Speech in the US has been protected under the Constitution since 1791 but, in reality, its remit was strictly limited until the mid-20th century. As recently as 1918, a presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, was disenfranchised and sentenced to 10 years in jail for speaking out in condemnation of mandatory military service. In 1964 state officials hostile to the burgeoning civil rights movement in Alabama opened libel cases against the press in an attempt to censor their coverage of events. One case went all the way to the Supreme Court where, in the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a landmark ruling placed the burden of proof in freedom of speech cases upon the prosecutors. This made it almost impossible to attack free-speech on grounds of defamation and thwarted state attempts to hush up the growing clamour for civil rights. Again, these gains weren’t the fruits of long planning but rather of large masses of people assembling to counter injustice wherever they found it.

It took centuries for these movements to achieve the rights which our generation inherits today. Perhaps, when I was younger, I was too impatient to tolerate working at this kind of speed. A decade later and confronted with the angry giant of climate change, it strikes me that moving slowly in the direction of positive change is better than not moving in that direction at all.

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